Waiters at Comal. Photo: Postcard PR
Berkeley is looking at setting a $10.74 minimum wage (the same as San Francisco’s) for businesses with fewer than 50 employees which would affect many local businesses, including restaurants. Photo: Postcard PR
Berkeley is looking at setting a $10.74 minimum wage (the same as San Francisco’s) for businesses with fewer than 50 employees which would affect many local businesses, including restaurants. Photo: Postcard PR

Berkeley’s adoption of an increased minimum wage moved a step closer this week. The City Council heard a long line of advocates urging adoption a $10.74 minimum wage for employees in Berkeley.

The City Council will have a special meeting on May 1 on a minimum wage ordinance.

The Commission on Labor’s recommendation to the Council is to set a $10.74 minimum wage (the same as San Francisco’s) for businesses with fewer than 50 employees and non-profits, to include a medical benefit requirement, and to adjust the minimum wage annually in line with CPI. For “corporate franchises” or businesses with over 50 employees, the commission recommends a minimum wage increase to “the equivalent of the Berkeley Living Wage,” which is currently $13.34 per hour.

“I urge you to assign more weight to the needs of low-wage workers and the wishes of your constituents than to anecdotal threats of economic doom by a few self-interested business owners,” said David Fielder, who has lived in Berkeley for more than 30 years.

“It’s a very straightforward issue of social justice,” said Nicky González Yuen. “One of the things I love about living in Berkeley is that we have as a community taken the lead on these issues time and time and time again.”

San Francisco adopted an increased minimum wage in 2004, while San José passed its higher minimum wage in 2012. Oakland and Richmond are considering new minimum wage laws, and the California legislature recently passed AB10, which will raise the state minimum wage to $10 by 2016. President Barack Obama signed an executive order in February that will raise the minimum wage for federal contract employees to $10.10 an hour, starting next Jan. 1.

While a number of public speakers anticipated pushback to the increase from local business owners, the two business owners that spoke on Tuesday night were both broadly supportive of an increase.

“There is no quality business without really well-paid employees,” said Dorothée Mitrani-Bell, owner of La Note and Café Clem downtown, and a member of the labor commission who abstained on the wage recommendations. “The implementation of this ordinance is what is really at stake for us small business owners. The schedule is a little steeper for some of us to work with right away.”

The commission’s plan is to institute the new required wage levels on June 30 this year, with increases to occur each subsequent June 30 based on the CPI for urban wage earners in the Bay Area. On June 30, 2015, an additional health care requirement is added, and starting in 2016 the small business minimum is increased by $0.55 each year after the CPI adjustment until it reaches parity with the Berkeley Living Wage, which is expected in 2022. After that, the proposal is that there is no distinction between large, small and non-profit businesses.

“We are in support of raising the minimum wage and working together to craft an ordinance that helps to raise up those individuals on the bottom of the wage scale,” said David Rowe, manager of the downtown restaurant Jupiter. “But the amount of this increase is just staggering. Simply put, it’s too much, too fast. We believe more investigation and fact finding is needed to illuminate the real world impact this will have… We implore you to take a very gradual, phased in approach to ensure that Berkeley’s small business community continues to thrive for years to come.”

Other Council business

In a meeting with a very light agenda, the City Council made a few other decisions on Tuesday night. A special session was devoted to the results of a community survey on potential ballot measures, and in the regular meeting the council agreed to commission a second survey with further questions.

As Berkeleyside previously reported, only a proposed sugar-sweetened beverages tax garnered significant majority support from surveyed likely voters. A second survey this month will hone the language on that proposal, focusing on the support for a 1 cent per ounce tax that could be a general tax (requiring simple majority support) or a special tax (needing 2/3rds majority).

There was strong council support as well to test further support for a reduced parks bond measure. In the community survey, 54% supported a 10% increase in the parks parcel tax, but to pass the measure would require 2/3rds support. A proposal to issue a $25 million bond and a $2 million special tax to fund operations mustered only 52% in the survey. Councilman Gordon Wozniak suggested a new survey could test a $15 million bond and a $1 million special tax.

“I think we have to think about a really stripped down version that just does the basics,” Wozniak said. “There’s going to be substantial opposition to any tax in Berkeley.”

Mayor Tom Bates called the deterioration of Berkeley’s parks “the major issue we have in our city at this time.”

The third item on the new survey will test further a commercial vacancy tax, which had only 54% support in the first survey.

“The large number of ground floor vacancies creates blight in our communities,” said Councilman Jesse Arreguín. “That’s an important issue. It has a direct impact in terms of economic development and our vitality.”

The council unanimously gave the go ahead for AC Transit’s proposed improvements to line 51B.

“AC Transit has done an incredible job of responding to every complaint,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.”

Finally, in a nearly empty council chamber, City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan talked about her audit report following the discovery of a $52,000 theft of marina funds.

“The opportunities to steal in the city of Berkeley are too numerous,” Hogan said.

She urged the adoption of better procedures — such as no shared passwords, and splitting the handling of cash and recording of it — and cautioned that cutting supervisory positions can create more opportunity for theft and fraud. City Manager Christine Daniel supported all of Hogan’s recommendations.

AC Transit rolls back Line 51 changes after pushback in Berkeley (03.24.14)
Sugar tax hits the sweet spot for Berkeley residents (03.14.14)
Minimum wage ‘tip credit’ idea gets cold shoulder (06.21.13)
Berkeley considers city-wide minimum wage hike

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Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...